by Ken OHYAMA
When I was trying to decide what to study at university back in the mid-seventies I was told that it didn't matter so much what I studied, the possession of a good degree was enough. Once in a job the organisation would provide me with the training needed for that sector. So I studied English language and literature simply because it was interesting and didn't really think about employment until my final year when I realised that my employment prospects were somewhat limited. That sounds extremely irresponsible and naive today when higher education makes you ready for specific employment and companies expect you to be productive from day one. If degrees are the hard currency of credentials then universities still have the sole right to print that currency, accredited by national bodies and subject to rigorous controls that guarantee the credibility of that currency.
However in recent years that exclusive role has come into question as employers become increasingly critical that universities are not teaching the skills needed in the modern workplace. The degree certificate states what subjects the graduate has studied and how long it took but says little or nothing about what skills the student has mastered and concrete evidence of those skills. What really is the difference between the grades in a qualification, how much more skilled is an A student compared to a B student? An article in Harvard Business Review, The Real Revolution in Online Education Isn’t MOOCs points to competency-based learning as the game-changer in higher education rather than the over-hyped MOOCs. Competency-based learning is about credentials for proven skills, often by at least partly recognising practical work experience and validating prior learning. Traditional degrees focus on years of study whereas competency-based learning sees time as a variable.
Competency-based learning flips this on its head and centers on mastery of a subject regardless of the time it takes to get there. A student cannot move on until demonstrating fluency in each competency. As a result, an employer can rest assured that when a student can use mathematical formulas to make financial decisions; the student has mastered that competency. Learning is fixed, and time is variable.
Using this method you can be awarded credentials without attending courses if you can prove that you fulfill the requirements. This demands that the awarding institutions have sound validation processes and can verify that the candidate has the competence required but the advantages are clear. Companies can employ people knowing that they have the right skills and learners can get recognition for what they know without always having to take lengthy courses. If you have the skills and knowledge a one year course could be completed in half the time or less. Greater global mobility and migration means that fully-qualified and skilled professionals are forced to repeat all or a great deal of their education in their adopted country simply due to lack of recognition. This can often be so demotivating that the person simply gives up all hope of ever working in their field and resigns herself to lower paid and less skilled work; a lose-lose situation for the country and the individual.
One variation on this theme is MOOC pioneer Udacity's venture into customised nanodegrees; six to nine month project-based courses designed in collaboration with major companies with the aim of developing key skills for employability.
But is this really a university education? No it isn't but there is clearly a need for a more varied ecosystem of qualifications otherwise major companies would not be so interested in competency-based learning. Many colleges are already working in this field and many will offer both traditional 3-4 year degrees as well as competency-based certifications. I still think there is a place for the more rounded education and life experience of a traditional university education but it is no longer the only path to employment. Education is undoubtedly the key to economic development but we are beginning to realise that this does not mean simply sending everyone to university. University's do some things very well but we need credible alternatives too.